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End VIP Culture

Unless effective steps are taken by the government to end VIP culture, the threat of fines alone is unlikely to eliminate the malaise of unruly behaviour by VIPs onboard airliners

Issue: 04-2017By Air Marshal B.K. Pandey (Retd)Illustration(s): By Anoop Kamath

Not only in India but across the globe, the airline industry is going through a new kind of turbulence. One normally hears of airlines battling problems such as high operating costs, paucity of skilled manpower, stringent demands of regulatory authorities, vying for market share and the perpetual struggle for survival in a fiercely competitive business environment.

But in recent times, some of the airlines have got embroiled in ugly conflict between passengers and the airline staff as also amongst the staff themselves. To begin with, there was the shocking episode of inhuman treatment of an Asian couple in the United States in which they were offloaded by the staff from an overbooked United Airlines flight. In India, there has been a revolt, the very first of its kind, by the pilots of Jet Airways holding Indian citizenship against the expatriate pilots in the airline. The Union of Indian pilots of Jet Airways has issued a directive to its members that they are not to fly with the expatriate pilots from May 1, 2017. This decision has been taken by the Union apparently on account of unacceptable behaviour by expatriate pilots towards their Indian colleagues as also towards the passengers.

As for the conflict between the passengers and airline staff in India in the recent past, there was the stand-off over class of travel and seating between Ravindra Gaikwad, a Member of Parliament (MP) from Shiv Sena, and the Duty Manager of Air India. After landing of the Pune-Delhi flight at the Indira Gandhi International Airport (IGIA) at Delhi, the MP refused to deplane that led to a conflct between him and the ground staff of the airline. Apart from the delay of one-and-a-half hours in the onward flight, the Duty Manager of Air India, who intervened to resolve the issue, was subjected to physical violence by the MP. This conduct was shameful and most unbecoming of an MP who enjoys the status of a VIP. This was followed by another incident, a spat between Dola Sen, a Trinamool Congress MP, and the Air India staff over seating arrangement on a flight that was to depart from IGIA for Kolkata. In this episode too, the flight suffered inordinate delay resulting in inconvenience to passengers and disruption of schedule.

In both these cases of misconduct by VIPs, neither was there any action taken against the defaulters nor was there a formal apology from them. This compelled the national carrier to explore other options for dealing with cases of unruly behaviour in the aircraft in the future. In the pursuit of this objective, Air India has proposed a fine of up to Rs. 15 lakh on passengers whose unruly conduct leads to delay in the flight. The proposal includes other steps as well such as filing of criminal case with the police and no direct interaction with the media. While the proposal has been mooted by the national carrier alone, it is likely that all other airlines will follow suit in adopting this system.

While the predicament of airlines is well understood especially on account of the implications of unruly conduct of passengers on air safety, the proposal for imposition of fine requires reconsideration. The very first question that arises is whether a criminal act can really be equated with monetary award. After all, can a heinous crime such as murder be ever compensated for by cash? Also, as it has happened in the two cases of unruly behaviour in the recent past by MPs where no action was taken by the law enforcement agencies, the political parties to which the two MPs belong or by the government, it is quite likely that in cases of similar misconduct in the future, the defaulting VIPs may pay the fine from funds available with them for development and get away scot-free. In all likelihood, it is the ordinary citizen who is likely to get implicated in cases of misconduct and become a victim of extortion by the airline. Some unscrupulous carriers on their part may see an opportunity in this scheme to fabricate false cases against unwary passengers and extract money from them so that they can cut their losses.

What is also significant is that unruly behaviour by VIPs is not confined to air travel alone. The menace prevails across other segments in society as well such as when dealing with law enforcement agencies, rail or road travel and passing toll booths. As the number of VIPs in India is several hundred thousand times that in any other country, the extent of the malaise has become intolerable. Unless effective steps are taken by the government to end VIP culture, the threat of fines alone is unlikely to eliminate the malaise of unruly behaviour by VIPs onboard airliners. Mere removal of red beacons from the top of VIP vehicles may not suffice.